Literature: manifestation and harmonizing of selfhood in the field of language, by means of the judgment orienting by cardinal points: time, history, the body, and nature. Originality in literature is a new constitution of self, a new possibility of harmony of self, in language, by means of judgment’s orientation—and so perhaps a new awareness or understanding of the cardinal points by which it orients. On these grounds, Edward Thomas’ originality can be ascertained. In his poetry, the self comes into being in the instant of its consciousness of what it might have been, might have lost, or might never have done; self is the consciousness of its own shadow. It does him an injustice to think him a poem of little Britain; he admired Clare, whose displacement of self by memory, forgetting, and observation of the natural world, is similarly misapprehended if relegated to the ranks of birding poems. Both are poets whose sense of self-absence allows for selfhood to become something new; selfhood breaks when the self breaks.
Take “The Brook”:
Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.
From Clare, Thomas learned to write lines that meandered through, and admitted, the presence of the contingent; a necessary setting of the stage for the drama of the judgment at work. There is the interweaving of absence, abrupt after the line-break, “unseen,” and then presence, “scent like honeycomb” as the eye roves until the butterfly suspended becomes an emblem of the poet: suspended on the irremovable physical fact of the stone, he feels only the warmth of the sun from above (the sun above) and below (the heated rock), oblivious to the quotidian drudgery to which the stone is subject, for which it owes perhaps its placement and even shape, and oblivious similarly to the spectral future, of further violence against it. This is the poet as Shelleyan spirit, and Thomas moves suddenly, unexpectedly through the membrane of the semi-colon to join himself to the butterfly, both broken free from time, the first and only present in that moment detached from other moments.
It might have been the resting point for the poem, but it is itself only a beat in the song: the attention of the poet, Clare-like, tugged elsewhere, between the butterfly and the Tennysonian “gleam,” myopic at first, before focusing onto the waters, which are themselves impossible of focus, being only the permanence of their perpetual change—until that too changes, the stability of the world owing to the perception of the poet. The glance to the flycatcher is a further debt to Clare, and yet here, without explanation, and without having fostered the expectation of explanation, time draws backwards and extends, so that the bird (the flycatcher) opposed to the butterfly.
The permanence of the changing water has transferred: the long stretch of history is held as a unity, commensurate to the coterminous sitting of poet and flycatcher, and the poet recalls the horse with the silver shoes, buried under the barrows, buried also, maybe, in the poet’s memory, since it is a specific horse to which he refers, either out of his youth or a folk tale. “All that I could lose | I lost”: time itself? Something dearer and nearer? As detached from context, from the circumstances of its conception, as the utterance is, it is also where we feel most firmly attached to the “I” of the poem, to the poet’s self, revealed in the obscurity.
“And then” because there is always something else, in this poem, beyond this poem, so that the word “And” carries nothing portentous or falsely momentous, but instead a relief and a dread, the poet pulled away from the grievous recognition of loss, but also the poet pulled onwards in a time that erodes and brings about loss. A similar ambivalence in the child’s voice raising the dead: dreadful but also cherished, those memories, as in epics.
The syntax of “ ‘No one’s been here before,’ was what she said” is Wordsworthian, from “Resolution and Independence,” implying as it does that we have asked, or that we already knew her to speak without knowing her words, or as if we knew she would speak: her speech both inevitable and beyond our knowledge. It was also what he felt, there being no word for this experience of time and self, memory and regret, chance and necessity, that intersect in the poem. “ ‘No one’s been here before,’ was what she said,” serves, it now seems clear, as a translation; he was not listening to the actual words, but instead to the meaning and the meaning was his alone, not even in her words perhaps, but in the “sight and sound” that he gathered from her, and from the place where they both were.
The coincidence of her being there at the same time as him is the final pairing, and the most meaningful, the one that subsumes the two others (poet/butterfly; poet/bird), in its account of time: not that the moment is timeless, or that the moment stretches to contain an entire past, but that it is only itself, in time, an utterance of a perpetual present tense, always loaded with pastness and futurity, but neither containing nor free from either.